A Better Response to “The Response”

This is a guest post by Dave Muscato. He is a student at the University of Missouri, and is a member of the University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (SASHA).

In light of Texas governor Rick Perry’s “The Response,” I’m writing briefly about prayer. Prayer is one of those things that religious people love and atheists love to hate. But actually, I’d like to put forth the idea that prayer can be—can be—a useful thing. I’m not the first atheist to say so, but prayer is not completely useless, and has several redeeming qualities. Prayer helps people relax, focus, and feel like they are in control of things they really have no control over.

A chart comparing the efficacy of prayer versus actually doing something.Prayer doesn’t have any effect on the outside world, of course. Plenty of studies, as well as common sense, establish this; but prayer—like its sister pursuits meditation, music, and exercise—does some wonderful things for our brains. What it does not do is solve real-world problems per se. That requires, quite frankly, the rolling-up of sleeves.

The United States does have its problems: economic, as we saw last night with the S&P downgrade of the US credit rating, as well as social. But as the bumper sticker says, two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer. Today in Reliant Stadium, we’ve 60,000 (30k people). Argh.

I’m not going to call this a complete waste of time. If it helps people feel better and gives them hope, that’s something. It’s a misplaced hope, but it’s better than apathy or cynicism, if you ask me. Recognizing that the world isn’t perfect is a step in the right direction if we want to make things better. Now, we just have to educate people on the best way to fix what’s wrong. Prayer—demonstrably—isn’t it.

On Facebook there’s an event today, a response to The Response, called “Day of Debauchery and Gluttony – A Great Day of Sinning!” At present count it has about 36,000 (virtual) attendees. Now, I’m as much a fan of debauchery as anyone, but I think this is the wrong way to counter The Response. Our world does have problems, and we do need to work together to fix them. Prayer and fasting are simply ineffective ways to do that. We can do better.

Let’s make a concerted effort to educate our neighbors on more-effective ways to improve things. Charity—in particular to, for example, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Sam Harris’s Project Reason, and The BIll & Melinda Gates Foundation—is a great place to start. My personal favorite is VillageReach, on the advice of GiveWell, a charity that reviews and empirically rates other charitable organizations. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend Peter Singer’s absolutely life-changing website & book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

If you can, volunteer for the secular charity of your choice this weekend. Donate to the secular charity of your choice today, and monthly if you can, and encourage everyone you know to do the same. Be an activist for change. Let’s do some good, and teach those religious people a thing or two about what it takes to make a real difference in the world!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Justsomedust

    Well said. 

  • http://disienai.tumblr.com/ Semipermeable

    I agree, volunteering, charity, and real actions to help our communities get through a time of financial uncertainty is a far better response then a night of ‘heathen’ debauchery (or as I call it, my normal saturday night). 

    We can be active in whatever way we can while they scarf down catered pastries and pat themselves on the back for doing nothing. 

  • Sick and tired

    I fully agree with the bumper stick, “two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer”.  All I have to do is look at Iraq, Afghanistan, the Nazi death camps, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Dresden, and the many an varied efforts to deny equal rights under the law to gays/lesbians, et al.; to see why two hands working is much more preferable than a thousand clasped in prayer.

  • Jcravens

    Hope it’s okay to give a plug for “Groups for Atheist and Secular Volunteers / Philanthropy”, a web page I put together per repeated questions on YahooAnswers from teens looking for non-religious volunteering activities (many are under the impression that such are the only ones available).
    http://www.coyotecommunications.com/stuff/atheists.shtml

  • http://www.loreleiarmstrong.com Lorelei

    I volunteer at my local library. I wish prayer would shelve the returned books and keep them in order on the shelves, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have to go twice a week. Of course, I’ll skip one day this week because I’m giving blood.

  • Rsperkins

    “It’s a misplaced hope, but it’s better than apathy or cynicism, if you ask me.”
    At least apathy and cynicism is honest. 

  • http://twitter.com/Biblebabble Bible Belt Atheist

    I think we need to keep in mind that these people are praying for a theocracy. One thing missing from the chart is that prayer very effectively reveals intent. When the praying is over these people will work very dilligently to destroy the constitution and the people who do not believe as they believe. The Governor of Kansas was there praying, believe me he does much more than just pray. He is denying access to abortion in Kansas by regulations and blocking state and federal funding. He forces people to live by his religious beliefs.

    • Anonymous

      Yes. The goal of this event is not to try to solve these problems, but to blame the problems on the non-believers and wrong-believers. Then they get to work themselves into a fervor to make the country more theocratic, believing that this will make God will take away all problems, saving everyone from thinking ever again.

      • Marguerite

        As far as I can tell, the goal of this event was actually to position Perry as a presidential candidate, and to make himself attractive to a certain constituency.  This tends to make me cynical about the whole affair.  Perhaps there is some benefit to prayer– but in this case, I think most of the benefit was enjoyed by Rick Perry.

    • John

      Wow, a public official taking action against what he and many many others see as the slaughtering of innocent life for the mother’s convenience.  The very idea!!!

  • Annie

    I held an event yesterday in response to The Response.  I called it “A Day of Service and Fun”  (I know, not a very clever title).  I invited my friends to choose any service project they felt was important, and when they were done, to come over for a barbecue and a swim.  We had a great time!  We were a diverse bunch, believers and non-believers, but we all shared the idea that there is a lot more you can do than just pray.

  • Ian

    Sure the relaxation, feeling of control, hope has some psychological benefits but prayer has a much more significant effect than those. Prayer very often has significant *communal* aspects. Whether it is mass prayer in church or at a rally, or “please pray for Jean and her operation”. 

    It is a mechanism for the *syncronization of concerns* – to bring groups of people to a similar focus and a similar dissatisfaction. As such it can have a very significant impact on the real world.

    It is no accident that powerful pastors first and foremost focus on bringing their plans to the prayer-lives of their congregation. “We need, as a church, to pray and fast over this vision…”

    Many of the features of the most successful religious groups are, by a process of natural selection, very highly adapted to produce results in human populations. If they were not, then the religions would be outcompeted by alternatives.

    So don’t be fooled. Prayer works. Rick Perry’s prayer rally was a very, very smart move.

    • Alantas

      Synchronization of concerns can be done without invoking the supernatural.

  • Anti_supernaturalist

    God is irrelevant to prayer — you can pray whether “he” exists or not. Miracles are irrelevant. You are meant never to get a response from God.

    what is prayer? — it’s not about what you want — it’s what others demand from you

    The lack of a direct response to prayer is not a response of ‘no.’ It’s simply a non-response. Moreover, it is really important that “God” never respond directly. To hear God speaking to you  — or drinking water while suffering a hallucination that it’s wine — makes you a likely schizophrenic not a saint.

    Jesus admonished his followers against prayer as asking-for-stuff — “consider the lilies of the field” — or prayer as public performance — “they have their reward.”

    Once rid of dead formalisms, prayer amounts to a purported alignment of your intentions with “the will of God.” Or YHVH, Allah, Ahura Mazda. Pick your favorite 1-god from the big-4 near eastern traditions.

    Prayer, basically, is one fat red herring. The word ‘prayer’ simply gets redefined until the action it points to becomes attitude adjustment (aka, openness to the will of god). Just how one explicates the concept of “God’s will” and how one would know it are other matters altogether.

    All that matters is your attitude — are you prepared to submit to an authoritarian god proxy (priest-pastor-evangelist) and authoritarian institution “guiding” your life? Are you prepared to submit? (‘Islam’ by the way means ‘submission’.)

    Well it’s your problem. Or better yet, you are your problem.

    Yes, you have a problem with adapting to a schema of institutionalized authoritarianism — and the religious diagnosis is always the same — the problem lies with you, not the 1-god of the big-3 monster theisms.

    Xianity and Freudian psychiatry are one in creating fictitious “illnesses” (‘sin’ and ‘neurosis’) for which each offers sham cures at premium prices.

    the anti_supernaturalist

  • Andrew F

    You really shouldn’t encourage atheists to donate to The BIll & Melinda Gates Foundation – it does horrible things to education.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002031167638 Gene Alexander

    I think it’s useful to be aware of things like the response (intelligence on activities of your adversary), but I worry that we somehow validate the response by responding to it, giving them the satisfaction of an audience beyond their peers, and adding fuel to their cause. Maybe the best way of countering the Revelations Party is to engage in productive activities to build, from the nation’s infrastructure to things like the Long Now’s 10,000 year clock, projects that assume that humanity and our nation will be here for a long time to come.

  • http://twitter.com/summerseale Summer Seale

    “I’m not going to call this a complete waste of time. If it helps people feel better and gives them hope, that’s something. ”

    I’ll say it: It’s a complete waste of time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    “my prayers are with you” is just as useful as the secular/atheist well-wishing of “my thoughts are with you.”
    You see a lot of attack against the effectiveness of prayer but you never hear people stating that thoughtfulness is useless.
    Because prayer isn’t entirely useless and I don’t anyone says it is. it’s just the extraordinary connotations of prayer that are rejected, not the thoughtfulness of it.

  • http://twitter.com/yeknomgod Brian Hogan

    As a suitheist, I have no issue with any particular positive-minded doctrine itself, but more the implemented actions based on its beliefs. Agreed that prayer in and of itself accomplishes little, but not all of us are wired to be shiny happy people all the time, and prayer does act as a valid crutch to help those with no other source of inspiration to pick themselves up and better their lives and subsequently those of others. 

    To discourage individuals from participating in faith-based charity and volunteerism throws out the baby with the bath water. Does a meal feed a starving child any less just because someone whose beliefs you don’t agree with paid for it?

    To make generic comments like “be an activist for change” does nothing to inspire.  Thanks to the profit motive of doing so, there is more than enough guidance out there now to pull people in less beneficial directions. Let’s provide guidance – even on the cusp of handholding if necessary… so that us oh so wise individuals who don’t need religion can offer hand UP to those who do, not a hand across the face because we’re so much better than them.

  • Charles Black

    This should be called the ‘Non-Response’ so as to stop giving this farce any credibility it doesn’t deserve.Prayer is a non-response to any problem period.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    “We can do better.”   You can say that about literally any activism anyone ever does. It’s true too. So should we avoid speaking out now? I think not.

    Yes we can do better. So what are YOU doing to about it? That question is for the armchair quarterbacks among us, which don’t get me wrong, we need them too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.zamecki Joe Zamecki

    “We can do better.”   You can say that about literally any activism anyone ever does. It’s true too. So should we avoid speaking out now? I think not.

    Yes we can do better. So what are YOU doing about it? That question is for the armchair quarterbacks among us, which don’t get me wrong, we need them too.

  • Tez Skanza

    I donated blood – I know it actually helped people.


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